Russia Has Backed Itself Into a Corner in Syria

Russia Has Backed Itself Into a Corner in Syria, by Vladimir Frolov in the Moscow Times.

Moscow and Washington are once again in a standoff over U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian airbase in retaliation for, what appears to be, Assad’s use of chemical weapons …

It was not supposed to be this way. Fighting ISIS was supposed to be the low-hanging fruit for both the U.S. and Russia to relaunch their relationship under Trump, a president who even exhibited some willingness to work with Assad on fighting terrorism. Just days before the chemical attack both the White House and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson essentially recognized the “political reality of Assad staying” in power. Moscow was looking forward to re-engaging with the U.S. on this area of common interest.

The chemical attack in Idlib changed everything. … Trump had to prove his toughness by launching a military response for a horrendous act by Assad that “crossed many many lines.” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bluntly stated that Russia and Iran bear moral responsibility for the civilian deaths in the attack. Even more ominously, he called upon Russia to reconsider its support for Assad, who would have “no role to govern the Syrian people,” and even opened the door to regime change in Syria through “an international effort.” …

Russia’s initial reaction to the chemical attack was a blanket defense of Assad’s air force: they bombed a rebel chemical weapons factory. Those same rebels then staged videos of children dying of exposure to sarin gas. It was predictably hapless. It was also obvious that Moscow was taken aback by the attack. Russia’s friends in Syria failed to give them the heads up.

In reacting to Trump’s missile strike on Assad’s air force, Russia leaned heavily on escalatory rhetoric, but its response had little substance. Moscow labeled the strike an act of aggression against a sovereign state, and suspended a military-to-military agreement on avoiding incidents in Syria’s crowded airspace. Overall, the reaction was self defeating. After all, Russia was warned in advance by the United States through this exact agreement. …

Moscow appears to understand that this was a one-off attack to demonstrate the U.S.’s credibility in enforcing vital international norms and projecting an image of U.S. strength to other powers. …

Assad may have overplayed his hand. He disrespected Putin by making him look helpless as a guarantor of the chemical weapons deal with Washington or worse, complicit with Assad in cheating on the agreement. He humiliated Putin before Trump by making Putin look weak. It is a slight the Russian leader has never taken lightly.

hat-tip Scott of the Pacific